Space Age comeback?
Glenn Reynolds writes: Space entrepreneur Peter Bigelow, who’s working on hotels in space, wants the Trump Administration to sharply increase NASA spending. But although I’m all in favor of making America’s space program great again, I’m not so sure that pumping money into NASA is the way to do it. For that matter, I’m not even sure that the term “space program” makes much sense in the 21st century.
Rather than a space program, what we really have is a package of space policies. Unlike the Apollo era, when the nation was fixed on a single major goal of landing men on the Moon before 1970, we now want a bunch of different things, all of them important, but no single one of them is our sole focus. And, honestly, much of what’s going on at NASA isn’t even close to overridingly important.
The good news is that, as I’ve noted before, space — at least the burgeoning commercial space industry — has been one of the Obama Administration’s notable policy successes. Where not long ago the United States was looking at an aging fleet of increasingly dangerous space shuttles, we now have a flourishing collection of private companies providing transportation into earth orbit, from SpaceX, to Blue Origin, to Virgin Galactic, to a number of smaller companies. (Full disclosure: I own a small amount of friends-and-family stock in one of those smaller companies, XCOR Aerospace). Moon Express even plans to land a robot on the Moon.
Emily Calandrelli reports: Less than a month after their last successful mission, SpaceX is back at it again. Falcon 9 is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida at 5:40pm EST tomorrow with telecommunications satellite Thaicom 8 on board.
What’s truly notable is that tomorrow’s launch will be the fifth one for SpaceX this year, demonstrating an increased launch frequency compared to last year.
In 2015, SpaceX conducted a total of six successful Falcon 9 launches, putting their launch frequency at about one launch every other month. So far this year, they’ve doubled that frequency with nearly one launch per month.
In March, President of SpaceX, Gwynne Shotwell, stated that the company actually plans to launch a total of 18 times in 2016, which would triple the number of successful launches compared to 2015. She also said that they plan to increase that launch rate even further the following year with 24 hopeful launches in 2017.
The expected increase would be remarkable considering there were only 82 recorded successful orbital launches in the entire world last year. This number was down from 2014, which saw 90 successful orbital launches – the highest number of annual launches in two decades.
With more Falcon 9 launches comes more rocket recovery attempts, and tomorrow’s mission will be no exception.
After the launch, SpaceX will make another attempted recovery of the first stage of their rocket on a drone ship out at sea.
A land-based recovery was ruled out for this mission because Thaicom 8 needs to be inserted into geostationary orbit (GEO: an altitude of above 22,000 miles), which means the mission will require higher speeds and more fuel and wouldn’t be able to navigate back to land.
Charles Krauthammer writes: Fractured and divided as we are, on one thing we can agree: 2015 was a miserable year. The only cheer was provided by Lincoln Chafee and the Pluto flyby (two separate phenomena), as well as one seminal aeronautical breakthrough.
On Dec. 21, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, after launching 11 satellites into orbit, returned its 15-story booster rocket, upright and intact, to a landing pad at Cape Canaveral. That’s a $60 million mountain of machinery — recovered. (The traditional booster rocket either burns up or disappears into some ocean.)
The reusable rocket has arrived. Arguably, it arrived a month earlier when Blue Origin, a privately owned outfit created by Jeffrey P. Bezos (Amazon chief executive and owner of this newspaper) launched and landed its own booster rocket, albeit for a suborbital flight. But whether you attribute priority to Musk or Bezos, the two events together mark the inauguration of a new era in spaceflight.
Musk predicts that the reusable rocket will reduce the cost of accessing space a hundredfold. This depends, of course, on whether the wear and tear and stresses of the launch make the refurbishing prohibitively expensive. Assuming it’s not, and assuming Musk is even 10 percent right, reusability revolutionizes the economics of spaceflight.
Which both democratizes and commercializes it. Which means space travel has now slipped the surly bonds of government — presidents, Congress, NASA bureaucracies. Its future will now be driven far more by a competitive marketplace with its multiplicity of independent actors, including deeply motivated, financially savvy and visionary entrepreneurs. Read the rest of this entry »
LONDON — Jeff Foust reports: A U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite retired in 2014 has suffered an apparent breakup, the second time in less than a year that a polar-orbiting weather satellite has generated orbital debris.
“The breakup, if confirmed, would be the second time in less than a year for a satellite in polar orbit. In February, the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program Flight 13 satellite exploded in orbit, creating several dozen pieces of debris.”
The Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC) announced Nov. 25 that it had identified a possible breakup of the NOAA 16 satellite. The center, which tracks objects in orbit and warns of potential collisions, said it first detected the breakup at 3:41 a.m. Eastern time and was tracking an unspecified number of “associated objects” in the orbit of NOAA 16.
JSpOC said later Nov. 25 that the debris from NOAA 16 posed no current threat to other satellites in orbit. It added that it did not believe the debris resulted from a collision with another object, suggesting that NOAA 16 broke up on its own.
NOAA 16 launched in September 2000 with a planned lifetime of three to five years. The spacecraft continued to operate in a backup role until June 2014, when NOAA retired the spacecraft after an unspecified “critical anomaly.”
“A sudden temperature spike in that spacecraft led spacecraft engineers to conclude a battery in the spacecraft ruptured because of a design flaw. Seven other DMSP spacecraft have a similar design flaw.”
The breakup, if confirmed, would be the second time in less than a year for a satellite in polar orbit. In February, the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program Flight 13 satellite exploded in orbit, creating several dozen pieces of debris. A sudden temperature spike in that spacecraft led spacecraft engineers to conclude a battery in the spacecraft ruptured because of a design flaw. Seven other DMSP spacecraft have a similar design flaw. Read the rest of this entry »
Drew Olanoff writes: Sending things to space isn’t cheap, which is exactly why Elon Musk got into the business with SpaceX. In a press release today about some newly signed contracts for use of its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles, the company updated just how much money it has booked.
Seven Billion Dollars under contract for the 60 missions on manifest. To put all of this into perspective, Uber has raised $8.2 Billion to date.
Space exploration is a capital intensive business. To date, SpaceX has raised $1.2 billion. Given the massive discrepancy between the startup’s past raise total, and its recent raise quantity, it seems quite reasonable to presume that the firm isn’t cash poor looking ahead in the short, or moderate term. Read the rest of this entry »
A new documentary about astronaut Gene Cernan is far more than the story of one person’s life
Jeffrey Kluger writes: Real astronauts never say goodbye. At least, not the way you’d think they would before they take off on a mission that could very well kill them. They’re good at the quick wave, the hat tip, the catch-you-on-the-flip-side wink. But the real goodbye—the if I don’t come home here are all the things I always wanted to say to you sort of thing? Not a chance.
“You’re almost too young to know what it means to have your Daddy go to the moon. But one day, you’ll have the feeling of excitement and pride Mommy and Daddy do.”
But Gene Cernan, commander of Apollo 17, tried to split the difference—as a scene in the new documentary The Last Man on the Moon, sweetly captures. Before Cernan headed off for his first trip to the moon, the Apollo 10 orbital mission, which was the final dress rehearsal for the Apollo 11 landing a few months later, he mailed his young daughter Tracy a letter. It was written on the fragile onion skin that was air mail stationery, back in the era when the very idea of air mail carried a whiff of exotic distance.
“Punk, we have lots of camping and horseback riding to do when I get back. I want you to look at the moon, because when you are reading this, Daddy is almost there.”
Cernan was a young man when he wrote the letter in 1969, and is a much older man, at 81, when he returns to it in the film. “You’re almost too young to know what it means to have your Daddy go to the moon,” he reads aloud, “But one day, you’ll have the feeling of excitement and pride Mommy and Daddy do. Punk, we have lots of camping and horseback riding to do when I get back. I want you to look at the moon, because when you are reading this, Daddy is almost there.” If the Navy pilot who once landed jets on carrier decks and twice went to the moon mists up as he reads, if his voice quavers a bit, well what of it?
As the title of the movie makes clear, Cernan was the last of the dozen men who set foot on the moon, and the 24 overall who journeyed there. No human being has traveled further into space than low-Earth orbit since Cernan climbed up the ladder of his lunar module in December of 1972, closed the hatch and headed for home. That makes it a very good time for a movie that can serve as equal parts biography, reminiscence and, yes, cultural reprimand for a nation that did a great thing once and has spent a whole lot of time since trying to summon the resolve, the discipline and the political maturity to do something similar again.
“That story, as Cernan and Craig came to agree, would be about the lunar program as a whole and the up-from-the-farm narrative of so many of the men who flew in it, as well as the random currents of fortune that saw some those men make it from terrestrial soil to lunar soil, while others perished in the violent machines that were necessary for them to make those journeys.”
The Last Man on the Moon, which premiered at Austin’s South by Southwest festival in March and was later shown at the Toronto Film Festival, had a long provenance, beginning eight years ago when director Mark Craig, who had read Cernan’s book, requested an interview. Cernan agreed and six months later Craig got back in touch and said he wanted to make a movie based on his memoir.
“My first answer was, ‘Who would be interested in a movie about me?’” Cernan tells TIME. The answer he got impressed him: “This movie is not going to be about you.” It was, instead, going to be about the larger story. Read the rest of this entry »
Undocking coverage lasts from 6:15 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. EDT, while landing coverage is scheduled to run from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. EDT
Mike Wall reports: NASA will test-fire the booster of its Space Launch System (SLS) megarocket today at 11:30 a.m. EDT (1530 GMT), and three astronauts will return to Earth from the International Space Station in the evening. You can watch the space action live on Space.com, courtesy of NASA TV.
“What’s impressive about this test is, when ignited, the booster will be operating at about 3.6 million pounds of thrust, or 22 million horsepower. This test firing is critical to enable validation of our design.”
— Alex Priskos, manager of the SLS Boosters Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama
The SLS rocket booster test takes place at the facilities of aerospace firm Orbital ATK in Promontory, Utah, with webcast coverage beginning at 11 a.m. EDT (1500 GMT). There will be no spaceflight involved: Engineers will fire the 177-foot-long (54 meters) booster for two minutes on the ground, in a horizontal configuration.
“What’s impressive about this test is, when ignited, the booster will be operating at about 3.6 million pounds of thrust, or 22 million horsepower,” Alex Priskos, manager of the SLS Boosters Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, said in a statement. “This test firing is critical to enable validation of our design.”
Another booster test is planned for early 2016, NASA officials said.
The SLS will incorporate two of the five-segment boosters, as well as four RS-25 engines, on its first two flights, which will be capable of lofting 70 metric tons of payload to low-Earth orbit (LEO). NASA intends to scale the rocket up to deliver 130 metric tons to LEO, to enable manned missions to faraway destinations such as Mars. The first SLS flight is currently scheduled for 2018.
This evening, NASA astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Russian cosmonauts Alexander Samokutyaev and Elena Serova will wrap up their nearly six-month-long mission aboard the International Space Station and come back down to Earth. Read the rest of this entry »
Ted Cruz now oversees NASA, and that’s a very good thing
At The Corner, Josh Gelernter writes: With the GOP in charge of the Senate, Ted Cruz has taken charge of the Science, Space, and Competitiveness subcommittee. Which means Ted Cruz now oversees NASA. On Wednesday, Cruz issued a statement saying that “Our space program marks the frontier of future technologies for defense, communications, transportation and more, and our mindset should be focused on NASA’s primary mission: exploring space and developing the wealth of new technologies that stem from its exploration…We must refocus our investment on the hard sciences, on getting men and women into space, on exploring low-Earth orbit and beyond . . . I am excited to raise these issues in our subcommittee and look forward to producing legislation that confirms our shared commitment to this vital mission.”
It’s not surprising that Cruz has taken an interest in NASA — whatever you think of his policies, there’s no question that he has a powerful intellect. And as a bonus, NASA’s Houston establishment is in the Texan senator’s constituency. So Cruz can be counted on to take this seriously….(read more)
The International Space Station is getting a fresh jolt with the first coffee machine aboard the station. The world of instant powdered coffee is giving way in low earth orbit to freshly brewed Italian espresso.
Rui C. Barbosa reports: The Chinese finally opened their 2014 campaign with the launch of a Shijian-11 class satellite. A Chang Zheng 2C (Long March 2C) rocket lofted a mysterious satellite – understood to be part of the Shijian-11 series of early warning satellites – from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center’s 603 launch pad at the LC43 launch complex at 02:46 UTC.
This is the sixth in a series of satellites that – according to the Chinese media – are only known to be “experimental satellites” developed by the DongFangHong Satellite Company of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp.
As with the previous Shijian-11 satellites, the true mission of Shijian 11-06 was not revealed by the Chinese authorities. However, some observers noted that the Shijian-11 series could be related to a constellation of operational early warning satellites.
‘Shijian’ means ‘Practice’ and this series of satellites have been used in a variety of configurations and missions for scientific research and technological experiments. Read the rest of this entry »
Most orbital debris is U.S. or Russian in origin. But China’s space program exacerbates an urgent issue.
In one of this fall’s most anticipated blockbusters, Gravity, an astronaut duo played by George Clooney and Sandra Bullock are left adrift in space after their shuttle is destroyed. The culprit is Hollywood’s newest villain: space debris. Unfortunately for present day astronauts, this is not just Hollywood’s febrile imagination at work. As innocuous as it may sound, space debris is extremely hazardous and could even be lethal. In fact, the National Aeronautical Space Administration (NASA) has initiated an entire program, the Orbital Debris Program Office, dedicated to studying and monitoring this man-made phenomena. The international community, including the European Union and United Nations, has meanwhile been pursuing resolutions to mitigate and reduce space debris. Read the rest of this entry »
In a call with reporters today, the founder and the current head of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., painted a bleak picture for the future of NASA’s manned spaceflight program based on its current direction. Their comments came on the eve of Congressional authorization for the space agency’s budget.
“The sense of drift or the sense of lack of consensus is still fairly serious” Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute, said of the political debate over NASA’s course. Pace, who previously served as NASA’s Associate Administrator for Program Analysis and Evaluation, was joined in a press conference today by John Logsdon, professor emeritus of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University and founder of the Space Policy Institute.